For the fourth straight season, the LeBron vs. Steph show will once again highlight the NBA Finals.
Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors beat the Houston Rockets to clinch their fourth consecutive Western Conference championship Monday night. Now they face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who advanced to the finals by winning the Eastern Conference championship over the Boston Celtics on Sunday.
While Golden State will go into the finals as the prohibitive favorite, the Cavaliers and the way James has carried his team on his back are the story of the playoffs. James hit not one but two game-winning buzzer beaters, including one in a pivotal Game 5 in the opening round series against the Indiana Pacers.
Had the Cavaliers lost in that first round, as many expected, few would have faulted James. The Cavaliers dealt their star point guard, Kyrie Irving, to Boston in the offseason, and that move backfired. In the middle of the season, Cleveland essentially blew up their lineup, dumping Isaiah Thomas — the player they obtained for Irving — in a series of trades intended to make the team younger and more agile for a playoff run.
With the team still struggling to find itself after the trades, James had to carry the team, and incredibly, he’s taken them all the way to the finals. He played every single minute of Game 7 in Boston — his 100th game in his 15th season. The NBA’s all-time leading scorer in Game 7s delivered 35 points, 15 rebounds, and nine assists to will Cleveland to victory.
The conference finals demonstrated how desperately Boston missed two of its All-Star players. The Celtics lost Gordon Hayward to injury in its first game of the season last fall, while Irving, injured in March, missed a chance to play against the team that traded him last summer. Despite those key losses, the young team led by Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and Terry Rozier made it to the conference finals, performing better than many expected for such an inexperienced team.
But their youth showed on Sunday night, when they withered under the spotlight of a decisive Game 7. James excelled as usual, and his supporting cast, including J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, George Hill, gave just enough help to win. The Cavaliers’ victory becomes all the more remarkable given the absence of All-Star forward Kevin Love, who is out with a concussion suffered early in Game 6, and the fact that in the decisive Game 7, Cleveland dealt Boston its first (and as it happens, last) loss at home in this year’s playoffs.
In the West, Houston ended up living by the three, and dying by the three. Third quarter barrages by the Warriors in both Games 6 and 7 did the Rockets in. Houston did not help themselves with atrocious perimeter shooting; in Game 7, the Rockets missed an astounding 27 straight three-point field goals.
Had the Rockets, who set the record for most three-point field goals made in a season on their way to a league-best 65 wins, made a mere 25 percent of their three-point shots, instead of the 16 percent they did make, they would have beaten the Warriors and advanced to the finals. Of course, the Warriors’ defense, which stepped up its intensity in the second half of Game 7, had something to do with all those misses.
The Western Conference finals ended up defined by a seemingly innocuous moment late in Game 5. As the Rockets clinched a hard-fought victory that put them one game away from a trip to the finals, Houston point guard Chris Paul injured his hamstring, forcing him to sit out both Games 6 and 7.
Prior to Paul’s injury, the Warriors looked to be on the ropes for the first time since acquiring forward Kevin Durant after the 2016 season. While the Warriors suffered from the loss of Andre Iguodala — the 2015 Finals Most Valuable Player, injured in Game 3 of the series — his absence did not hurt them nearly as much as Paul’s did Houston. By removing both a passing and scoring option from the floor, Paul, nicknamed “CP3” for his jersey number, was the three the Rockets missed most of all.
The Warriors’ balanced attack, featuring Curry, Durant, guard Klay Thompson, and forward Draymond Green, will have home-court advantage in the finals. The betting money will incline heavily towards Golden State; after all, last year this same Warriors team easily dispatched the Cavaliers — are arguably a better and more cohesive group than this year’s Cleveland squad — in five games to win the championship. The Warriors may be the best team in the league, but the world’s best player in James will have something to say about the outcome of the finals.
Ironically, as the playoffs commenced a month ago, the NBA appeared poised for a potential changing of the guard. Young teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, began to emerge. The Milwaukee Bucks’ “Greek Freak,” Giannis Antetokounmpo, has drawn national attention for his prowess. And the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz made waves in the early rounds of the Western Conference playoffs.
But for now, those teams stand at least a year away from greatness, and the status quo endures. LeBron remains the “Beast of the East,” heading to his eighth straight Finals — four with the Miami Heat, and the last four with Cleveland. To put that in perspective, the last time LeBron James wasn’t in the finals, Prince William was still single, and House Speaker Paul Ryan was the ranking member of the House Budget Committee.
Steph and the Warriors have won two of their three finals meetings to date; the Cavaliers look to even the score at two championships apiece. With James a free agent, Cleveland may see its last, if not its best, shot to win another championship for many years. But where the best player in the league may land next year can wait until July. For now, the best player in basketball will take on the best team in basketball — the fourth renewal of a championship series that has defined the NBA this decade.